Kirby: Mass Attack review: Pink, puffy and preposterous

The core conceit of Kirby: Mass Attack was dreamed up by a complete lunatic. That's the only thing I can say about the game with absolute certainty. What sane human being would choose to eschew the time-tested formula of floaty-platforming and adorable mimicry that serves as the keystone for the franchise? Who, in their right mind, would swap that formula out for a bizarre, chimeric blend of the platforming, real-time strategy and mini-game collection genres?

That's not a condemnation of Kirby: Mass Attack, of course -- that sort of outside-the-sanity-box thinking also led to the creation of the magnificent Kirby: Canvas Curse. This latest aberration of the powderpuff series doesn't quite reach the heights established by that predecessor; but during those moments where its preternatural ideas work in tandem, it comes awfully darn close.
%Gallery-125888% Rather than mount your roly-poly protagonist on a hand-drawn rollercoaster, Mass Attack sees your one Kirby divided into up to 10 Kirbys, whom you must guide through a series of obstacles using the stylus -- and only the stylus.

Your set of maneuvers are about as simple as you'd expect. You can tap on a spot on the screen to move your gaggle of Kirbys towards your pen, or double-tap to set them running. Clicking an object makes your Kirby-pile attack it, while sharply dragging across a Kirby sends it flying in that direction. You can also hold the stylus over the murder of Kirbys, and manually drag them in any direction for a short distance.

These interactions are easy enough to manage when you're dealing with one protagonist, but once you approach the maximum 10, things can get pretty hectic. Later levels feature time-sensitive traps which require fleet feet to avoid -- moving a screen-wide queue of Kirbys through without taking damage is nearly impossible. Once a Kirby takes two hits (or one particularly brutal one), he'll start to float away to Kirby-Heaven; if you fail to grab him before he leaves the screen, you'll have to collect enough fruit to summon a new Kirby from the ether.

Compared to other Kirby titles (in which death is usually an unthinkable fate), Mass Attack is incredibly difficult. There are elements strewn across each level which require a certain number of Kirbys (usually 10) to activate, so keeping up your roster is vital. Completing a level isn't terribly hard, but finding all of its hidden medals and fruit caches while protecting enough Kirbys to satisfy the next level's entry fee is, on occasion, a herculean task.

That makes it indescribably frustrating when one of your Kirbys gets taken away to that Great Dreamland in the Sky through no fault of your own. Despite your furious tapping, a lone Kirby will have some trouble managing the path in front of him, resulting in his horrific demise. Also, the camera will occasionally stick in place, and can only be moved by moving your Kirby mass off of the screen, and -- if you're unlucky -- into the awaiting mouth of an obscured foe.

The core formula gets a little long in the tooth after a while, but never to the point of frustration. HAL Laboratory has thrown some new gameplay element into every other level or so, such as a teetering tree which you must keep balanced as you ascend its branches, or an on-rails tank shooter, or one of countless clever boss and mini-boss fights.

The end result is something of an unbalanced one: Some levels reek of monotony, especially after you've spent a few hours throwing Kirbys at foes and weaving through obstacles. Others were enjoyable enough to merit multiple playthroughs, sending me on a hunt for the hidden medals therein which are needed to unlock a separate set of bonuses and equally delightful mini-games.

If Kirby: Mass Attack is to serve as one of the Nintendo DS' first-party swan songs, the platform could do much, much worse. In a way, it's a perfect indentikit of the touchscreen genre which the DS effectively invented: It features both the tactile joy of the device's strongest offerings with the occasional clumsiness which universally haunts the system's stylus-centric games.

The highs handily outweigh the lows, thanks to a near-schizophrenic level of variety and metric tons of charm HAL Laboratory has included. Mathematically speaking, the sheer volume of Kirbys doesn't make Mass Attack ten times as good as any other DS title, but I'll be entirely damned if it doesn't make it ten times as endearing.

This review is based on a retail copy of Kirby Mass Attack for the Nintendo DS.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.